100 Australian Poems 2.0: "The Beautiful Squatter" by Charles Harpur

Charles Harpur's poem "A Beautiful Squatter" is a strange little affair and rather out of character for the poet.  I've always been of the view that Harpur wrote very much in the European style - or, at least, what I suspect that style to be - rather than in a quintessential Australian bush ballad style.  This impression is partly due to his writing period, from 1833-1868, which precedes the work of Lawson (1887-1922) and Paterson (1885-1941), and partly due to the way he handled his subject matter.

He looked at the Australian bush with an eye that would not have been out of place in the Old World.  If you read "Dawn and Sunrise in the Snowy Mountains", for example, you don't get much of a sense that the poet is describing an Australian scene, in fact it could quite as easily have been written about Switzerland or the Rockies.  ("..And now, even long before/The Sun himself is seen, off tow'rds the west/A range of mighty summits, more and more/Blaze, each like a huge cresset, in the keen/Clear atmosphere.") This may well have been due to the fact that Harpur was inventing his poetry as he went with few other major contemporaries to follow, imitate or lead.  It's not the bush I think of when I remember Harpur, it's love sonnets, and mood pieces rather than balladic tales and poems to be recited round a campfire.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising Harpur for this, just trying to put him in context.  He did write "The Creek of the Four Graves" in 1845 which describes the death and burial of four men in the bush, killed in a skirmish with local aboriginals.  But this is a long contemplative piece: a novel rather than a short story. 

Which is why "The Beautiful Squatter" is so different from his other work.  The squatter of the title, riding through the bush, comes across two young Aboriginal women sitting under a tree by a creek. He seduces them with tales of "dampers and blankets quite new", and, while this is not stated explicitly, gets rather intimate with at least one of them.  The women return to their camp where the story of their encounter comes out, the local mob get a group of men together and the squatter is "waddied to death in the bloom of his charms."

The story is reasonable enough and the humour of the poem is directed towards the squatter rather than the indigenous natives, which might have been the expected course.  Yet even they are sketched in caricature, which is very different from the dignified, elusive natives of "Creek".  The poet doesn't judge or take sides here, however, and maybe he meant this poem as a sort of warning to the whites not to treat the Aborigines as play-things and chattels.  If so he was remarkably ahead of his time.

In a 1980 essay titled "The Aboriginal in Early Australian Literature", Elizabeth Webby states that Harpur had written other pieces about Aboriginal suffering ("A Wail from the Bush" and "Ned Connor. A Tale of the Bush" as two examples) which showed understanding of the problems of Aboriginal-White conflict.  As she says in her essay: "It seems appropriate that it should be the Irish, with their own history of invasion and usurpation, who were in the van of opposition to white oppression of Aboriginals" (Southerly, March 1980, p58).

"The Beautiful Squatter" may not be a prime example of the bulk of Harpur's work but it does deal with some issues he covered in other poems and is still an amusing piece.  The poet definitely had to be included in this collection.

Text: "The Beautiful Squatter" by Charles Harpur.

Author bio: Australian Dictionary of Biography

Publishing history: the poem was originally published in "The Weekly Register" on 15 March 1845 under the title "Squatter Songs, No. 1".  It was then included in The Poetical Works of Charles Harpur in 1984, and subsequently in such anthologies as Old Ballads from the Bush (1987), The Sting in the Wattle (1993), The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads (1993), and Australian Verse: An Oxford Anthology (1998).

Next five poems in the book:

"Taking the Census" by Charles R. Thatcher

"The Sick Stockrider" by Adam Lindsay Gordon

"My Other Chinee Cook" by James Brunton Stephens

"Bell-Birds" by Henry Kendall

"Are You the Cove?" by Joseph Furphy ("Tom Collins")

Note: this post forms part of my series on the poems contained in the anthology 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know edited by Jamie Grant.  You can read the other posts in this series here.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 14, 2009 12:04 PM.

Reading Notes: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg was the previous entry in this blog.

Michael Gerard Bauer Interview is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en